The prophecy was wearing at her voice, sandpaper on her throat. All her words were honeyed now, the force of the prophecy through her lips having smoothed down the edges of her speech until her vowels seemed to float like that damned Apollo himself. She’d used to only have these winged words when they had been flying from some place beyond her, but now she couldn’t escape them.
Agamemnon wanted her less now with her beautiful liars voice, if she’d had any trust left to spend in the first place. She was a broken war prize, of lesser value than the crown jewel, Helen, the woman he was still pretending he did not want.
Hecuba had warned him, but she’d been about as effective at it as Cassandra would have been. Cassandra was almost fond of her mother for that, as much as she was still furious for how her mother had dismissed her as mad. Everything burned these days, like the emotions she’d been planning to spend across the course of her life were coming to bear all at once.
Cassandra had laughed herself sick at Agamemnon’s response. Helen was to be stoned when they set back on Greek soil, so what did it matter? They were the same, Helen and her, in the worst ways. Dead when they reached Greece but oh, the things they could do on the way. At least Agamemnon’s preoccupation with Helen had rid Cassandra of her obligation to his bed. It wouldn’t dissuade Clytemnestra from killing the both of them at the end, but it made the journey easier.
The situation was different, and the whole thing was useless anyway with Hades’s hand beckoning but-
Her maidenhead had been her only currency to pay for her future. Even now without much of a future to speak of, she was loath to give it up. Once, she’d foolishly thought that she could hold her payment and prize all at once. Like the gods would let anyone have anything they hadn’t paid for, that price of blood and loss perfectly calculated to be more than anyone could bear.
But wasn’t she a priestess? they had all asked. Didn’t she know? Hadn’t she read? Of all people, surely, she should have understood what Delphi told them all.
Cassandra knew herself. She had not acted in excess. There was a difference in desperation. In hope, in wanting, in calculations being spun into flimsy thread. She hadn’t known her flax was rotting. She hadn’t known her careful spinning and bloody fingers would all be for nothing.
Speaking prophecy was different now, without the burning bay to coax the future from her lips, soothe her throat with rawness, mask the fear in her eyes.
It was... as much as she choked on them, as much as they were shaping her voice into a betrayer, the words came kinder than before. She could tell when they were coming in that half-breath before they spilled out of her. Prophecy didn’t drain her anymore and it didn’t burn and she hated to think of how those may have once been connected, how telling petty kings solutions to their disputes with the gods had been drawn from the very fire within her.
And she was warm. Even in the sea-soaked night, even with only her last ragged dress in the days before Helen had taken pity on her... she hadn’t been cold since the day Apollo had looked at her with his flame bright eyes, the chilled goose-pimples on her bare skin fleeing from the might of it.
The gods could hold endless power, but the catch lay in interfering. Cassandra and a handful of words from her awful honeyed voice could enact the change in the course of an empire than Apollo could spend months on.
Or she could have, if he hadn’t cursed her. Cassandra wasn’t godlike, not like the poets called all the midshipmen, the ones who had fought so hard to take her home down brick by brick. She was close, though, in a way that no other person could ever listen to. Cassandra stood by the side of humanity, knowing, waiting, howling, and nothing would ever come of it.
Know thyself, Delphi chastised them all. Know you are not a god.
She knew. Having read it again wouldn’t have changed her mind.
“Wait!” she had called. Odysseus of many turns, he turned to her, already picking the parts of her apart with his clever eyes. “Please, listen, there are things ahead that you-“
Later, she would learn his men had plied him with stories of Cassandra, the once-priestess of Apollo who thought she still held the power of prophecy. What a shame, they had told Odysseus, the no-one who might have saved her, that she had lost Pythia’s gift. She had been one of the best, before.
In the moment, too far to hear what those around him were muttering, all she saw was him turning his back on her. The only damned man who would — could — listen to her, and he’d left.
He really was a coward. The king who’s fault-and-not it was that his men would be devoured by the Peloponnesus.
She’d have cursed them, if she didn’t already know they were doomed to Skylla’s teeth and Poseidon’s devouring wrath. She would have cursed them, if she could have wrestled the words free without making herself sick at the idea of the gods creating someones doom. The prophecy had poured out of her anyway, dooming him by her own hand. Nobody would look for him, now, not until it was far too late.
Cassandra’s words of prophecy were always wrong, after all. If they were heard at all.
The smell of bay leaves choked her, even as the curl of ivy in her dish smouldered with black smoke. The sun danced in the bronze, delighting in the danger of flame on sea. Cassandra’s fists were already aching with how long they’d been clenched, numbness extended down from her ankle where she sat in supplication.
“Cassandra,” he said, and she was weeping already. There was something to a voice when it was meant to be heard, something that lay deeper than words or expression.
It had been a week since someone had spoken a word to her with that, a week since the paltry greenery in her offering bowl had smoked to life in her window. It hadn’t been a kindness, putting Cassandra in quarters with slatted walls, a place for the light to shine in. The sea came in, too, when it was rough, ending the short lives of more than a few of her desperate writings. And the sun... she knew why they had given her the sun. They were thinking to lash her with it, to make her remember how she had been forsaken.
It had been longer since anyone had said her name to her, beseeching her to exist. Apollo was the only one who would listen and hear, now. She didn’t know if that was part of the punishment, or if he was granting mercy in his conversation.
She was not his. She’d thrown his garlands into the wind, cast his divinity from herself while it still lay unsoiled upon her. She was not his, but he was hers. Her warm pressure of future-seeing words, her sacred smoke, her blanketless warmth in the night. Apollo belonged to her, and that was more precious to her than belonging to him ever could have been.
“Clear skies,” Cassandra said, and then from the hollow of her chest, wrapped in syrup and sun, “though it won’t last long.”
“My husband says it’ll be quiet for the next few days,” Helen said mildly. This far out from land she looked cast in sea-foam, the blue of the settling sky wrapped around her in an embrace. “His sailors would know the sea.”
Cassandra bowed her head to the queen, wishing for clear skies and for the simple connection that she was now always denied. She hadn’t realized how much she had always relied on that shared covenant, the heart-settling calm of acknowledgement.
She felt safer on the sea than most of the men around her. Apollo had a claim on her, and Poseidon had built the walls of her city — if he was going to wreck any of the ships, it would be for the Greeks and not her. She had forgotten to record her predictions on how long it would take for Odysseus’s first ship to went down, and she was still cross about it. It would have been nice to wake to sun and sky and know that Odysseus would be receiving his comeuppance.
“They’ll fight over you again,” Cassandra told Helen softly. She’d meant it, the words were hers, but the last word choked into a proper prophecy and Cassandra had to brace herself on the railing as she coughed magic loose.
Helen laughed, then she coughed too, hacking up a glob of something and spitting it overboard. Cassandra wondered, distantly, if all the men that had fought in her war would have thought it was a beautiful wad of spit. “Thank you,” she said, when they were both breathing easy again.
Cassandra just looked at her.
Helen flickered a glance at Cassandra. “It’s reassurance,” she said. An almost echoed unsaid. “I’ve heard my husband-”
“-and most of the rest, say that any word out of your mouth guarantees the opposite. So.” She turned properly to look at Cassandra now, and it almost seemed like she was the golden thing, not the sunlight laid across her skin. “Thank you. For the hope, at least, that the war is over.”
The day the kings stopped fighting was the day the kings were dead and gone.
She started testing her curse after that. Cassandra didn’t own her words often enough to try and figure out what would happen if she spoke non-prophetic things. She did, however, tend to speak prophecy of small things if she lingered too long around others. Did those count, too, or was Helen just goddess-cursed and cynical?
“It’ll rain today,” Cassandra told the man at the tiller. He steered them at the nearest bank of clouds, confident in their harmlessness. That night, Cassandra held Apollo’s warmth close, curling on her pallet to brace against the storm.
After that, the journey gained an element of joy. Cassandra was enjoying her curse now, taking all the pleasure she could from wreaking havoc on the ship of Agamemnon, king of Sparta, sacker of Troy.
Most of the time she lingered near the food, watching the crew come and go, waiting for prophecy to spill from her lips.
“You’ll spill that next week,” she said, and the cook scoffed. The flour spilled twice that next week, his carelessness boosted by how confident he was in her inaccuracy.
“Your guest-friend aboard Odysseus’s ship won’t make it home,” she told someone else. He lowered his jar of precious honey and Apollo whispered in her ear of his decision to store it under a floorboard for his friend’s homecoming. It tasted all the sweeter for how she’d acquired it.
“Your neighbour is fucking your wife,” Cassandra told another. She felt a vindictive sort of glee for the woman, now free of suspicion from her brute of a husband. She’d been frightened that if she knew the crew better, if her words revealed the truths of their hearts, she’d come to care for them. There had been no need.
There wasn’t a single soul on this ship that was worth saving.
“Careful,” Apollo told her. The end of the ship’s journey approached, but Cassandra could feel the tempest brewing just past the horizon.
“I know,” she said. Poseidon, the next-closest to her heart, throbbed at the edge of her awareness. He had built her city, but he hadn’t raised the sea to stop the Greeks from sailing to sack it.
“Cassandra,” her god said again, warning, and even as she slipped to sleep she could still feel the tide of honey and warm sunlight of his voice.
Her silence scared the crew more than her words had. Sickly sweet pleasure hummed in her veins every time she felt their eyes on her.
She would have been silent even without Apollo’s warning. If she spat out the wrong words at the wrong time, the opposite action could sink the ship with her still aboard. Not that she wasn’t tempted but-
Cassandra knew, in her singular way, that Clytemnestra waited, axe in hand. She knew because her voice had told her, that Agamemnon would die at the hands of his wife. The sea, even with vengeful Poseidon in it, was too unsure. If she was going to die, she needed to know that Agamemnon would be taking that final katabasis with her.
For one woman, for one apple, there was this. Troy in ruins, her women enslaved, her men flung broken on the dirt. Cassandra's siblings were scattered in slavery across all the lands of the world, never to be seen again. She wished she still had the authority to spit the words of Delphi at the warmongering king, bedded with Helen on the ship of their collective doom. Nothing in excess, everyone had reminded her. What had the war been, if not excess?
Like you and your ilk have never broken a pact with your gods, she wanted to scream. When Minos had kept his beautiful bull, his kingdom had suffered the rampage. She’d been guilty of similar, once. A princess was more vulnerable than a king, but Cassandra had avoided consequences before. But this, whatever existed between Apollo and her, was hers alone.
What a mad little thing she is, the crew said, uncaring if she heard. Cassandra cradled her temper in her chest, a roiling sun-bright inferno, and didn’t correct them.